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Federal investigation confirms FAA controllers' dereliction of duty

When midnight rolled around and flight traffic thinned out, air-traffic controllers guiding planes in the busiest U.S. corridor whipped out laptops to watch movies, play games or gamble online.

Controllers on break inflated air mattresses and napped on the floor. Some left before their shifts were over. They cursed at managers, refused to train new controllers and flouted rules requiring them to pass on weather advisories to pilots.

"It was blatant and in your face," Evan Seeley, a former manager in the Ronkonkoma, N.Y., tower who came forward last year, said in a phone interview last week.

Those and other allegations by Seeley were corroborated by investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration, according to reports released last week by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an agency formed to help and protect whistle-blowers inside federal agencies.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner sent a letter Tuesday to the White House and Congress detailing findings in Seeley's case and six other verified whistle-blower complaints, saying the FAA and Department of Transportation were slow to address them or hadn't acted.

In New York, investigators found a facility where FAA managers were unwilling or afraid to discipline controllers' union members, the reports said. Supervisors who tried to enforce the rules saw their cars vandalized or were threatened. The result was widespread violations of rules that undermined safety, according to the reviews by the special counsel and FAA.

Seeley, who had worked in Fort Worth, Texas, before coming to New York in February 2010, said he was shocked by what he saw. "The advice from the seasoned front-line managers was: You keep your head in the sand," he said.

The FAA has a higher rate of employees seeking whistle- blower protection than any other U.S. agency, according to the special counsel office's preliminary review.

"There did not seem to be the level or urgency that we thought many of these claims really deserved by the agency," Lerner told reporters.

The New York case was an exception to Lerner's concerns in one regard: As the FAA was rocked last year by disclosures that controllers were sleeping on the job across the United States, agency teams descended on the facility on Long Island. Within months, they had corroborated most of Seeley's allegations.

On Sept. 6, the FAA replaced the facility's top managers and brought in experienced supervisors from other locations to serve as mentors for the remaining staff.

"It is clear, given the number of Mr. Seeley's allegations that were substantiated in this investigation, that significant corrective actions are required," the FAA's internal investigation found.

The FAA didn't respond to questions for this story about specific complaints, saying in an emailed statement that it has an office dedicated to investigating charges by employees of impropriety and safety lapses.

That division, the Office of Audit and Evaluation, oversaw the investigation in New York, according to documents released by the special counsel.